Airwallex sets sights on Arab Gulf states as it opens office in Tel Aviv

Digital payment processor worth $5.5 billion eyes growing population in Mideast with disposable income its young people like to spend online

Nir Kedar/Airwallex

Pranav Sood, general manager for Airwallex's Europe, Middle East and Africa division (left), and Or Liban, head of the Israel office and the Middle East

TEL AVIV, Israel – Airwallex, a digital payment platform that aims to disrupt the way businesses move money around the world, is building up its new office in Israel and aiming to expand its reach to the Arab Gulf states.

Founded in 2015  in Melbourne, Australia, Airwallex opened a branch in Tel Aviv in May, hiring Or Liban, a former Google executive, to run operations and expand in the region, Pranav Sood, general manager for Europe, the Middle East and Africa, told The Circuit.

Across the Middle East, you see young, growing populations – populations that have lots of disposable income and people who are looking to spend online for e-commerce – also to travel and to buy and sell things around the world,” Sood said in an interview from London. “All of those factors mean that the Middle East is a region that we’re very excited about and looking to invest in.”

Airwallex, which processes more than $50 billion in transactions a year, is one of the fastest growing financial technology companies and carries a market value of $5.5 billion. The company raised $902 million from investors that include Salesforce Ventures, Sequoia, MasterCard, Tencent and Lone Pine Capital.

Sood will be in Israel on Monday to attend the Calcalist conference on financial innovation, which is being co-sponsored by Airwallex. Liban is scheduled to speak on a panel about the relationship between banks and fintech companies.

In Israel, the company’s customers include Papaya Global, which helps businesses manage payroll and payments, and OurCrowd, a Jerusalem-based venture capital investing platform. Airwallex has about 1,300 employees in 20 offices, including San Francisco, London, Amsterdam, Singapore, Hong Kong, Shanghai and Tokyo. The company is currently recruiting a staff of about 10 employees for its new office in Tel Aviv and is looking at potential acquisitions in Israel in the field of cybersecurity.

“Israel is a market where we are already present and we have customers,” said Sood, 33, who was hired a year ago and visits Israel every two or three months. “When we look at the UAE, we also see opportunity to expand our coverage. Many of our customers want access to the UAE because it’s a strong economy and there’s a lot of international trade that comes out of it.”

Airwallex’s creation story involves a coffee shop the company’s four founders opened as students at the University of Melbourne and “came to the conclusion that it is very, very painful and expensive to buy and sell things around the world,” Sood said. Jack Zhang, now the CEO, had a background in foreign exchange and had written trading algorithms for a number of investment banks, Sood said.

Eight years later, Airwallex is challenging the biggest players in the international payments market, led by the Brussels-based Swift network, which Sood says is too slow.  Airwallex’s proprietary technology revolves around a digital wallet that customers pay into and can use to make payments to countries where it is connected with local banking networks. The company has also focused on developing a “deep regulatory and licensing backbone” around the world, he said. It has managed to carve out a loyal customer base by focusing on small businesses and making it less complicated and expensive for them to pay bills and receive payments across national borders.

Airwallex’s founders “basically thought, ‘you know what, let’s use this experience and expertise and build something that fundamentally changes the way that people move money around the world,’” Sood said.